It is always possible that one or two teams will find some late-season mojo, but at the halfway stage in log play it seems fairly clear which teams will contest the quarterfinals in Super Rugby this year.
In New Zealand, the unbeaten Crusaders, together with the Hurricanes and Chiefs, will be there. In South Africa the Lions, the Sharks and Stormers should make it. Australian rugby is in crisis, but the ridiculous rules of the competition will ensure that one of their sides, probably the Brumbies, will host a quarterfinal. That leaves one place to play for, and the contenders are the Jaguares, the Highlanders and the Blues.
So the second half of the competition will be about consolidating log positions and finishing as high among the top eight as possible to ensure home advantage at the knockout stages.
The Lions are sitting pretty, because they have played consistently well all season. Their only loss was when a deliberately under- strength team was sent to Buenos Aires. Johan Ackermann’s men now have a run of fixtures that should enable them to finish log play in the top two.
This week they host the Jaguares on the highveld, then they travel to Australia for three weeks, playing the Force, the Rebels and the Brumbies. Pride comes before a fall, but this pride is too good to succumb to either of the first two teams, and should have enough left in the tank to humble the Brumbies.
When they return they host the Bulls and the Kings in Johannesburg, before a five-week break occasioned by a bye that is followed by the June international window. Ironically, that may be the Lions’ Achilles heel, with a host of their players likely to be needed for Springbok duty in a three-Test series with France.
In July, the Sunwolves should be cannon fodder in Johannesburg, and the final fixture of log play sees the Lions take on the Sharks in Durban. It is likely that there could be a lot resting on the result of that match.
By contrast with the Lions, the Stormers have it all to do. This week they face the Crusaders in Christchurch, followed by the Highlanders in Dunedin and the Hurricanes in Wellington. The fourth Kiwi team in a row will be the Blues back at Newlands, followed by the Sharks in Durban. It is not unkind to suggest that the Stormers might lose all five of those games.
If so, they can thank the fixture secretary for a post-June run-in that features a trio of games against the Cheetahs, the Sunwolves and the Bulls. The last of those fixtures will be at Loftus Versfeld and, as with the Lions/Sharks game, there should be much to play for.
In the context of the bigger picture, then, this week’s match in Christchurch is probably an exercise in damage control. The Stormers’ carefully constructed bubble did not survive the controlled ferocity of the Lions at Newlands last week. Now they play an opponent that they have never beaten in 10 attempts in New Zealand.
The Crusaders are busy building a team to compare with those captained by Todd Blackadder at the beginning of the new millennium. They can field a pack made entirely of All Blacks and a backline full of wit and thrust. They know how to beat South African teams, having won 37 of their last 38 home games against them.
So the best the Stormers can hope for is to keep it tidy, to try and to avoid giving the Crusaders a try-scoring bonus point and, if they play really well, they might just earn one themselves.
The opposite is the case for the Lions, who will expect five points from their Friday-night clash with the Jaguares. There is no question of the Lions being a one-season wonder and the Jaguares have lost to both the Sharks and the Bulls on this trip. They have been hamstrung by an inability to control the ball in set pieces, forcing them into a high-risk, low-reward passing game.
The last two matches of the weekend are in Pretoria and Durban. After beating the Jaguares last week, the Bulls need to win well against the Cheetahs to keep faint hopes of finishing in the top eight alive. The Sharks are coming off a bye and play a Rebels side that shocked everyone last week with a narrow 19-17 win over the Brumbies.
Just as the statistical odds stack up against the Stormers in Christchurch, so it is hard to see anything but a Sharks win in Durban. The Rebels have never won a match in South Africa and the Sharks have won their last seven Super Rugby games at Kings Park. If they are indeed to be taken seriously as contenders, this is the sort of match the Sharks have to win, and win well.
Next week they have a tough proposition in Buenos Aires, but after that three in a row against the Force, the Kings and the Sunwolves. As with the Stormers, the next five weeks will define the Sharks’ season.